Hello readers and welcome back to the third entry in this year’s Reading List. As mentioned, now that the fiction list is back (and committed to reading more contemporary female authors) I am trying to read more BIPOC authors. To that end I decided to read another recent book by a female author, the 2020 novel A Burning by Megha Majumdar. This was a well written book, centering on three main characters in modern-day India whose lives intersect in some important ways, despite none of them sharing much page time together.
The novel is divided into chapters (along with a few interludes) titled by the characters: Jivan, a young woman living in the Kolabagan slums with her family; Lovely the “hijra” (meaning essentially transgender) actress; and PT Sir the physical training instructor who goes on to become a political heavy-hitter. The novel begins with a terrorist attack on a train that is blamed on Jivan due to a Facebook post. The other characters’ lives are shown in great detail but it was Jivan’s portions that spoke to me the most. She spends almost the entirety of the novel in prison, and this resonated with me in the sense that I have also spent portions of the previous months in institutions where I could merely observe the outside world. This work deals with many important issues of contemporary India: its right-wing turn in politics, made emblematic by PT Sir joining with a party that ends up allowing and justifying some pretty horrific violence against Muslims, as well as how the hijra community in the character of Lovely tries to make it in a mostly uncaring world. The many themes of the novel include turning back upon those one knew in a previous life (both characters are called to testify at Jivan’s trial, but only one of them tries to exonerate her) as well as how the charges of “terrorism” can lead to a life being destroyed by a simple post online. The novel deals with the various classes of Indian life quite well, and I was struck by the multiple striving narratives and how they played out. The end result for one character is quite depressing but as with any good fiction, resolution is not always what the reader might hope it would be.
I would definitely recommend this novel for anyone wondering about the modern day Indian state and its great economic upheavals, especially in the Modi era. I have to say I was not that familiar with the minutiae of the various classes, but understood it much better having read this novel. It is an uncompromising look at a place where the author’s parents still live and it resonates far beyond this part of the world.
Up next I will be taking on one more contemporary female BIPOC author in Gish Jen’s (also published in 2020) novel The Resisters. Thanks for continuing on this reading journey with me.
Hello readers and welcome back to this (very) occasional series I started for the blog three years ago with varying results. As noted way back then, this series began as a file in my Google Drive entitled “What’s a writer for?” and morphed into these posts in a somewhat organic manner. First involving my science fiction novel and then looking at other items such as failure and listening to editors, the most recent post had to do with productivity in a time of global pandemic.
As I noted in a recent website update, I was diagnosed late last year with bipolar disorder, and it has cast a wide shadow on all of my writing these past months. I wanted to share some more about this experience and show how even when tasked with such seemingly insurmountable odds writers can still overcome them. But as I am in the middle of doing so I thought I could at least catalog a bit of what it’s like to write with such a diagnosis. I took a recent writing day to get down the events of my breakdown and ended up with ten-thousand words added to a document that I hope will turn into another book someday. Getting it down helped me to own the events, some of which I will share here for the first time.
The hardest lesson for me to understand was this was a year(s)-long event, beginning in the final months of 2020 and spreading through spring of last year and exploding in the winter. I was having major issues in the relationship with my wife and made the (in retrospect) rather stupid decision to set all of my fiction writing aside for half of 2021. I also became quite controlling over the communication side of my marriage but did not realize this until about a year after the fact. Thankfully I have tons of manic inspired notes written down from that time to always make me remember how this started. But the real breakdown occurred in December of last year, when I spiraled into a series of paranoid delusions about a neighbor recording me through my phone and other devices, which then expanded to my maintenance guy and then to other entities at large. I won’t go into the details as it’s still hard for me to reckon with but suffice it to say if my wife Mary had not intervened I would have been in an even worse position. I spent almost a week at Saint Joseph’s hospital in Saint Paul, and by the end of it I was put on medication for bipolar disorder. After trying various other medications (and finding their side effects to be even worse) over the next months I wound up back in the hospital this past March and on different medications. Finally as I write this today I am back on the original meds I was put on in the first place, which seem to be the kind that now work for my life.
All of this is to say, how does one possibly work as a writer when such events occur? It’s a good question and one I’m still grappling with in my life. The diagnosis and aftermath was the most difficult period and now that I’m back on a stable medication regimen I am beginning to figure it out. I attempted to re-draft my manuscript during the worst of it (when I wasn’t sleeping very well at all) and I am quite dissatisfied with the result. I had a lot of notes from my editor and while many of them were well-founded, I did change parts of the manuscript a bit too much and wound up with a draft that is going to need more re-working this summer if I am going to be ready to submit it to agents.
I did want to delve a little into what it’s like to have this disease. Imagine having your brain running on overtime and then that it attaches itself to any little thought you might have and blows it way out of proportion. That is just a slight example of the racing thoughts that manifest themselves daily if one is not medicated. Also imagine your emotions flown way out to either end of the spectrum (either manic and feeling great, or more often, depressive and feeling horrible) and that may begin to explain how I am dealing with this every day. This is indeed the most difficult thing I’ve faced in my life as a writer, and just trying to express it here is not going as well as I’d hoped. But I wanted to explain a little bit about the diagnosis so those of you who do follow my work can know what’s going on with it.
I may be back with another update in the coming year and I hope to return to the Writing Life series overall as I have plenty of other topics to cover in the same sporadic fashion. Thanks to those of you who have read my stuff for years, and please take care of your own mental health. It really does matter.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.